Sitcom pioneerPeg Lynch

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Lynch’s mother was a nurse at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. When she was 15, a classmate’s father asked Lynch if she could help him at his local radio station, KROC. She wrote copy for air and interviewed celebrities who came to town, usually to visit the Mayo — such as baseball great Lou Gehrig, actress Jeanette MacDonald, and writer Ernest Hemingway. She liked radio, and after college, worked at KATE in Albert Lea, Minn., where she really started to write: commercials, a daily half-hour women’s show, a weekly theater show, a weekly farm news show, three 10-minute plays per week, and two 5-minute sketches per week. As if that wasn’t enough, she created a “filler” that she called “Ethel and Albert” — a 3-minute spot that eventually grew, as she was hired away by other stations, into a daily 15-minute show about the lives of a fictional married couple, Ethel and Albert Arbuckle of the fictional town, Sandy Harbor. In 1944 Ethel and Albert went national on the Blue Network (which later became ABC television), making Lynch one of the first women to create a national radio show, let alone a sitcom, and Lynch was smart enough to keep ownership of the show, even turning down a lucrative offer from NBC. When no suitable actress was found for the national rollout, Lynch played Ethel herself; Richard Widmark was hired to play Albert. Widmark was soon replaced by Alan Bunce, and he stayed in the role for more than 20 years. In 1949 the show expanded to 30 minutes; in 1950 it debuted on TV as a 10-minute spot on another show, and by 1953 it was its own half-hour program. Because Lynch owned the show, she was able to secure her own sponsors and move it to other networks when necessary, but it was finally canceled in mid-1956 …at which point it went back to radio, renamed “The Couple Next Door”. Lynch liked radio better anyway: performing in front of cameras with a studio audience “spoiled my timing,” Lynch once said, because “I would have to hold up for the laugh.”

What was the show about? Essentially, nothing: “I base my show on the little things in life,” she said in 1950. “I believe that people like to find out that other people have some of the same problems they do.” That may sound familiar. “I’ve heard from various people over the years that the conversational style in ‘Ethel and Albert’ is similar to a show I’ve never seen,” Lynch said in 2014. “‘Siegfield’? ‘Zigfeld’? ‘Feigold’? Something like that?” That run of the show lasted until 1960, but the concept returned in revivals and specials until 1964. Every episode was aired live, and sadly few of the early shows were recorded. All along, Lynch wrote the show too; during her career, it’s estimated she wrote about 11,000 TV and radio scripts. The show combined “the domestic comedy of a vaudeville-based era with a keen modern sensibility,” said radio historian Gerald Nachman. “Lynch made her comic points without stooping to female stereotypes, insults, running gags, funny voices or goofy plots.” She died July 24 at her home in Massachusetts, at 98.

From This is True for 26 July 2015